That knowing feeling

Jonah Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex talks about “feelings of knowing” — how we feel sure we know what we can’t retrieve from memory. He’s talking about tip-of-the-tongue things: you can’t quite remember who played the sheriff of Nottingham in Robin and Marian, but you know he had a short last name that started with S.

Lehrer suggests that this “feeling of knowing” is often highly accurate.  (I hadn’t considered this concept before, so I’m glad Lehrer linked to this study (PDF) by Janet Metcalfe.) This comes into play (as he notes) when Jeopardy contestants click the buzzer without (presumably) knowing the answer: they’re betting that they will know it (retrieve it) within five seconds.

And often, they’re right.

The larger point is that we won’t get a genuinely “human” version of artificial intelligence (not to mention more energy efficient computers) until our computers start to run emotion-like algorithms. What Watson needs isn’t a bigger hard drive or some more microchips – he needs to develop feelings of knowing, which will tell him that he probably knows the answer even if he’s still drawing a blank.

For decades, we’ve assumed that our emotions interfere with cognition, and that our computers will outpace us precisely because they aren’t vulnerable to these impulsive, distracting drives. But it turns out that we were wrong. Our fleeting feelings are an essential aspect of human thought, even when it comes to answering the trivia questions on Jeopardy.

In an update, Lehrer links to a later post by Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks, who sees the early-buzzing of Jeopardy players as a kind of metacognition. “It’s being able to manage your mental resources based on estimations.”